I was just recently in a production of Kiss Me Kate, so my proximity to this material will be much closer than most of the musicals I cover in The Musical Project.
Kiss Me Kate is so very fun to sing. I’ll get to the score and the actual meat of the musical itself momentarily, but first…y’all I got to bitch about the movie.
If the only experience you have with Kiss Me Kate is the 1950-whatever movie version, then brother, you don’t know Kiss Me Kate. The movie is sanitized and just a jumble of pieces that at one time comprised the actual work that is the stage musical Kiss Me Kate.
I really enjoy Howard Keil in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. His vocals soar and he is perfect the role. Academically he’s also perfect for Petruchio/Fred but he bombs. Bigtime. I get the feeling the director was of the Frank Sinatra “that take was good enough” school of directing because everything feels thrown together. I get that musicals written for the stage don’t transition well to film, but you know who’s problem that is? Not mine. Unfortunately, as a viewer I still have to deal with it if the producers didn’t. Oy.
Meanwhile, the Code. Oh, the Code. The old Production Code basically took all the fun out of Kiss Me Kate.You see, Cole Porter is dirty, downright raunchy if you play it right. So when Ann Miller sings “According to the latest report…” you have to know that the actual lyric is according to the KINSEY report and that Ann Miller, bless her, isn’t even supposed to be singing it in the first place, and not in that getup. (I found myself saying “What is she doing with her body??” several times.) A man needs to sing “Too Darn Hot” because why else would it matter if the singer “ain’t up” to their baby tonight? Huh? Hmmm???? So already we have a reference to the most comprehensive survey ever performed in reference to human sexuality AND a dick joke. And that’s just one song.
What I also find fascinating about the sanitizing of Kiss Me Kate is that it doesn’t extend to Shakespeare. Baptista says, “…thoroughly woo her, wed her and bed her” and that is no problem. My guess? It didn’t even occur to the censors to look at the Shakespearean language. Certainly not our loss, I just like to point out the inconsistencies and the patent ridiculousness that is censorship.
Everything in Kiss Me Kate is punctuated by a metaphorical wink. In fact, in order for the show to pass muster for me, Lilli HAS to actually physically wink after “I am ashamed…” SHe HAS to. Or she loses all credibility. And I think we’re dealing with an actual domestic violence situation.
I’m not a fan of Taming of the Shrew. I think it’s a chestnut. I suppose it has academic merits. I’ve seen a production that employed nearly gymnastic commedia del arte between Katherine and Petruchio. But it’s not my cup of Shakespearean tea. I do enjoy the Taylor/Burton/Zefferelli version but that is a big ol’ Art Imitating Marriage situation.
Unique. Lovely. Done.
So why do a musical that does a Taming of the Shrew light with the added pre-women’s lib eye twitches of 1940’s sexual politics?
Cole Porter. That’s why.
This score soars. It is brilliant and very influential. There’s no opening whistle in West Side Story without the opening to “Too Darn Hot.” Tevye can’t ask Golda “Do You Love Me?” if Lois doesn’t ask Bill why he can’t “…Behave.” In fact, I often found myself backstage singing, “…with our daughter getting married and this trouble in the town, you’re upset…you’re worn out…go inside… go lie down!” while “Why Can’t You Behave” is trickling through the monitor.
Kiss Me Kate is the ultimate transition piece. You can hear the future of musical theatre (as seen from the 40’s) and yet, there, right at the end of show placed ever so conveniently for costume change purposes, is a perfect vaudevillian number preserved for posterity in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
And that’s the thing. It’s a show of numbers. Big, classic musical theatre numbers that any theatre aficionado should know. I happen to think that “Always True to You in My Fashion” is one of the most clever belt numbers ever to grace the stage. Full of winks and puns. Check out Blossom Dearie’s rendition if you want to hear my favorite. I use it as an audition piece.
However, even though it’s a show of numbers, it’s not exactly a revue. The plot is certainly more developed than some musicals. It’s a play within a play structure. Yet, there are moments I feel this structure fails. This musical comes from an era where the pop music of the day came from Broadway stages. Audiences didn’t demand as much depth from plots. They wanted to hear the latest hit.
For me, Kiss Me Kate is about what Cole Porter could do, and he could do a lot. Many of the songs in Kiss Me Kate are major high water marks in musical theatre as well as being textbook influential entries.
“So in Love” is both a perfect ballad AND torch number. It’s also an actress’ dream. In the right hands, “So in Love” makes Lilli Vanessi/Kate a fully 3-D woman. It’s a mistake to label the character of Lilli Vanessi and/or Kate just a bitch. And the right actress won’t.
But analysis aside, let’s look at this show from a performer’s standpoint. It has everything. You like to dance? Here ya go. You want to belt? How about “Always True to You in My Fashion?” You want legit? Here’s “So In Love.” How about a waltz? Here’s “Wunderbar.” How about Jazz? Here’s “Too Darn Hot.” Operetta? “Cantiamo”. Comedy? You got it.
Sure there’s a bit of a light hand if you look at it from a domestic violence point of view. This is not a particularly enlightened show.
Interestingly, the 11 o’clock number is “From This Moment On.” It’s a duet. And it’s a lie. Lilli is lying to herself rather than finding some sort of resolve. Is that a flaw? I don’t know. I don’t know if adherence to structure dictates perfection. It would be a little scary if it does. I mean, Kiss Me Kate isn’t perfect. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” basically shouts by virtue of existing that there is a massive costume change going on backstage. Still….everybody wants to see those gosh-darn Gangsters again. I also think Cole Porter was probably of the “who gives a shit?” school of thought.
It’s an old show, so there are many places to experience at least a recording of the score, if not a production. The recent London revival has some great renditions. This musical hails from a time when pop music came from musical theatre. So while in our minds watching Bono and The Edge write Spiderman or Duncan Sheik pen Spring Awakening feels kinda dirty and gross, well, there’s history there. Sure I think Cole Porter is a better musician, but it would be wrong to pretend precedent hadn’t been set years ago. Although, and correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t think anyone was brutally maimed and disfigured during the original run of Kiss Me Kate.
Kiss Me Kate, for a musical theatre performer, is like learning your family tree. It’s your roots. It’s where this whole thing came from. I like knowing who was influenced by what. Sondheim, for example, thinks the best of the best is Porgy and Bess. I like knowing that type of thing. Hearing the influences of today’s writers is humanizing. We often thrust composers into demigod status. There is this web meme going around called Steal Like an Artist. It’s nice to know that even the big guys do too.
To Review: the movie is a stonker (although potentially worth watching solely for Fosse and his uncredited choreography. You also get to see the dude dance.) But the stage version is a classic.